High-throughput and virtual screening are widely used to discover novel leads for drug design. On examination, many screening hits appear non-drug-like: they act noncompetitively, show little relationship between structure and activity, and have poor selectivity. Attempts to develop these peculiar molecules into viable leads are often futile, and much time can be wasted on the characterization of these "phony" hits. Despite their common occurrence, the mechanism of action of these promiscuous molecules remains unknown. To investigate this problem, 45 diverse screening hits were studied. Fifteen of these were previously reported as inhibitors of various receptors, including beta-lactamase, malarial protease, dihydrofolate reductase, HIV Tar RNA, thymidylate synthase, kinesin, insulin receptor, tyrosine kinases, farnesyltransferase, gyrase, prions, triosephosphate isomerase, nitric oxide synthase, phosphoinositide 3-kinase, and integrase; 30 were from an in-house screening library of a major pharmaceutical company. In addition to their original targets, 35 of these 45 compounds were shown to inhibit several unrelated model enzymes. These 35 screening hits included compounds, such as fullerenes, dyes, and quercetin, that have repeatedly shown activity against diverse targets. When tested against the model enzymes, the compounds showed time-dependent but reversible inhibition that was dramatically attenuated by albumin, guanidinium, or urea. Surprisingly, increasing the concentration of the model enzymes 10-fold largely eliminated inhibition, despite a 1000-fold excess of inhibitor; a well-behaved competitive inhibitor did not show this behavior. One model to explain these observations was that the active form of the promiscuous inhibitors was an aggregate of many individual molecules. To test this hypothesis, light scattering and electron microscopy experiments were performed. The nonspecific inhibitors were observed to form particles of 30-400 nm diameter by both techniques. In control experiments, a well-behaved competitive inhibitor and an inactive dye-like molecule were not observed to form aggregates. Consistent with the hypothesis that the aggregates are the inhibitory species, the particle size and IC(50) values of the promiscuous inhibitors varied monotonically with ionic strength; a competitive inhibitor was unaffected by changes in ionic strength. Unexpectedly, aggregate formation appears to explain the activity of many nonspecific inhibitors and may account for the activity of many promiscuous screening hits. Molecules acting via this mechanism may be widespread in drug discovery screening databases. Recognition of these compounds may improve screening results in many areas of pharmaceutical interest.